COEBURN - One of Lonesome Pine Raceway's most familiar faces in the grandstands, on pit road and in victory lane is gone.
Wanda Phillips, 58, was killed late Saturday night in an accident at LPR while making a move for the lead in the Ladies Pure 4 division race. The family learned Sunday that Phillips suffered a fatal heart attack in the accident.
It was the first racing fatality at LPR since the track opened in 1972.
A Coeburn native, Phillips was the most prolific winner in the women's divisions at LPR since the Ladies divisions began in the late 1980s. She was a past champion and was attempting to become the first repeat winner of the season in the division when the accident took her life.
Cars in the Pure 4 divisions are basically four-cylinder street cars converted into race cars with a roll cage, padding, fuel cell, racing seat and five-point racing harness installed for safety.
The 10-lap Ladies Pure 4 race was the final feature Saturday night. Phillips was attempting make a pass to the outside of the leader coming out of turn four when the Honda Civic she was driving tagged the outside wall.
The car caromed off the wall and crashed head-on into the inside guardrails on the frontstretch, apparently at full throttle. LPR pit reporter "James K." Kincer witnessed the wreck and was the first person to reach Phillips.
"She was gone by the time I got there," Kincer said. "The way she never lifted off the gas after that first impact with the outside wall, she had to be unconscious. She was an experienced driver and if she was conscious she would have lifted.
"She was a racer. She was going for the win. I think she just went into the turn a little hotter than she wanted to and got into the loose stuff at the top of the track."
Racing was a family affair for Phillips. Her son Freddie Phillips was LPR's public address announcer throughout the 1990s, and he'd just returned to announcing this season four races ago. Another son, Clynus Phillips, is a longtime driver who is currently not active.
Wanda Phillips is also survived by son Brett Phillips, as well as a sister, Twyla Barton, and grandson Justin Phillips.
Wanda Phillips was among the best-liked drivers and personalities at LPR.
"She got the pole award yesterday and I got to interview her in the pre-race ceremony," Kincer said Sunday. "She was always sweet. I said, ‘Wanda, you did pretty good.' She said, ‘Well, James K., I did all OK' - she had a bit of a squeaky voice - but she said, ‘These other girls are coming. They're getting faster.'
"She was always smiling, always happy to be at the racetrack, and she was so excited that it reopened this year. The first thing she said to the new track operator this year was, ‘When are you going to let the ladies race?'"
Freddie Philips had to leave the track early Saturday night to go to work and didn't witness his mother's accident. He said his mother was a Christian first, a mom second and a racer third.
"She was doing exactly what she wanted to do, and I really feel like we all have a race to run in life and she ran hers straight into Heaven last night," Freddie Phillips said Sunday. "In the past four weeks, I've announced four races, more than I've done since I retired in 1999, and in those four weeks we've gotten to spend a lot of quality time together. It was obvious to anyone who spent time with her that she loved racers and loved racing, and if she couldn't be in the driver's seat, she was in the audience."
He added: "She went out the way she would have wanted to go, and most of us don't get to choose. She lived life to the fullest and racing was her passion."
Clynus Phillips started racing at Kingsport Speedway in 1985, and his mother was beside him every step of the way. She began her driving career in 1990, finishing second in her very first start. No one can remember exactly how many races Phillips won except that she won a couple of "Enduro" events in the 1990s and was a regular winner in Ladies Pure 4 over the past several years.
"She could drive the wheels off any car," Clynus Phillips said. "I want her to be remembered as a race winner and a dedicated race fan. We want everyone to know that we want that racetrack to continue at all costs. This Saturday night, if I have to wave that green flag - either me, Freddie or Brett - we're going to wave that green flag.
"If she thought she'd caused the track to close, it would break her heart. We want the racing to keep going."
Wings Air Rescue landed on the frontstretch and transported Phillips to Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport. Track operators Clinton and Kaylie Vance were with the family at the hospital when doctors announced the cause of death.
"It's just a terrible tragedy - a lot of tears," Clinton Vance said. "All of our prayers go out to Wanda's family."
Vance said that he has indefinitely suspended racing in the Ladies Pure 4, as well as the Hornets division, which is a Pure 4 class for youngsters ages 12-18. Vance added that he has banned open-face helmets at the track.
Visitation for Phillips will be held this evening at Sturgill Funeral Home in Coeburn from 5 to 9 p.m.
The funeral will be held in victory lane at LPR Tuesday at 11 a.m., followed by burial at her family cemetery.
Drivers are encouraged to attend with their cars and help Phillips complete the lap she never finished in the funeral procession out of the track.
In lieu of flowers the family asks that a donation be made to the Victory Junction Gang on Phillips' behalf.